by Ian Mann
February 22, 2023
Over the course of five albums Little North have developed a trio sound that is very much their own, albeit one that fits neatly into the Scandinavian jazz tradition.
(April Records APR102CD)
Benjamin Norholm-Jacobsen – piano, Martin Brunbjerg Rasmussen – bass, Lasse Jacobsen – drums
Little North is a contemporary Danish piano trio that has enjoyed considerable success at home as well as making inroads on the international jazz scene, including the US.
“Wide Open” is their fifth album release and follows “Yonder” (2016), “Little North” (2020), “Finding Seagulls” (2021) and “Familiar Places” (2022). All born in the early 1990s the members of the trio met at a music conservatoire in southern Denmark (it would appear that the two Jacobsens are not related) and as can be seen above the last few years have represented a particularly productive time for the band. “Familiar Places” featured guest appearances from Danish trumpeter Kasper Tranberg and Swedish guitarist Viktor Spasov but “Wide Open” finds them returning the core piano trio format.
As the trio’s name suggests Little North are fully aware of their place within the Scandinavian jazz tradition and the album’s liner notes, by journalist Kim Skotte, discuss the group’s position within the context of ‘Nordic Cool’.
Skotte’s essay places the trio’s music in a lineage that embraces the influences of Swedish pianists Jan Johansson and Esbjorn Svensson and the Danish bassist Niels Henning Orsted-Pedersen. More contemporary inspirations are the Danish guitarist Jakob Bro and even the Scottish pianist Fergus McCreadie, who is cited as being part of a wider ‘North Sea’ jazz aesthetic.
Skotte also references the Danish soundscaping duo Bremer / McCoy featuring bassist Jonathan Bremer and pianist Morton McCoy. Indeed Bremer is credited as co-producer on Little North’s debut album “Yonder”.
As the titles of previous Little North titles suggest the trio’s music is strongly influenced by nature and the landscapes and seascapes of their native Denmark. Their music is composed collectively and the group does not have a designated leader, although Norholm Jacobsen’s piano is inevitably the focal point of the trio’s sound.
Improvisation has always been an important component of their music making, and no more so than on this latest album where three short spontaneously improvised episodes punctuate the seven more formal compositions. The title “Wide Open” reflects their growing interest in developing their music in a freer, less rigidly structured setting, whilst also referencing the big skies and sea vistas of the Danish coast.
The album commences with one such episode, with “Improv #1” clocking in a little under a minute and featuring the rippling, wave like arpeggios of the piano underscored by Jacobsen’s mallet rumbles and other percussive punctuation.
Rasmussen’s bass introduces the more formal composition “Floating”, with Jacobsen joining to add splashes of colour via his drums and cymbals. Pedal point bass continues to underpin Norholm Jacobsen’s gently melodic piano explorations while Lasse Jacobsen continues to provide a constantly evolving drum commentary full of a myriad of subtle sonic details. The music evolves slowly and thoughtfully, with an emphasis on space, colour, texture and timbre. It represents a very European approach to jazz and improvisation, and more specifically a Scandinavian or ‘Nordic’ one.
The mood of unhurried serenity continues into “Sunyata”, another piece distinguished by the trio’s delicate instrumental interplay with all three musicians making a distinct and significant contribution to the trio’s sound. Inevitably the piano remains the melodic focus but Jacobsen’s subtle, but consistently inventive drum commentary also catches the ear. He’s given that freedom to express himself courtesy of Rasmussen’s selfless double bass work, which underpins the trio while remaining mobile and responsive. Skotte may not mention them but I’m sometimes reminded of Norway’s Tord Gustavsen Trio, another group that approaches improvisation in an unhurried manner and which places a focus on intimacy and fine detail. Similarly Sweden’s Bobo Stenson Trio, and particularly their drummer Jon Falt, another player who combines busyness with subtlety.
A second spontaneous episode, “Improv #2” features more gentle piano arpeggios, this time augmented by the chime and shimmer of cymbals and a soupcon of bowed bass.
Many commentators have singled out “Elna” as the album’s stand out track. Introduced by the deeply resonant sound of unaccompanied double bass this piece is more sombre in tone, but still undeniably beautiful. Rasmussen’s bass is essentially the lead instrument, augmented by sparse piano chording and the soft rustle and bustle of Jacobsen’s brushes.
“With Four Shadows” commences with a loosely structured, but somehow stately opening section, with Rasmussen briefly flourishing the bow. This sounds as if it may have been largely improvised. Jacobsen then lays down a drum pattern that provides the lead into the next section, a more formal passage with Norholm Jacobsen’s piano taking the lead, but interacting closely with the other instruments. The music remains resolutely unhurried, with the emphasis still on colour, texture and beauty, even in its most animated moments.
Unaccompanied piano ushers in “Dissolving Points”, another piece to evolve slowly and unhurriedly with brief flutters of arco bass featuring alongside more orthodox plucking as the piece slowly, and sometimes dramatically, unfolds.
Rasmussen also flourishes the bow on the unsettling “Swell”, again effectively taking the lead. It’s a piece that sounds largely improvised and includes the use of extended techniques, as does the following “Improv #3” which features the sounds of dampened piano strings and possibly prepared piano techniques.
The delightful “Lullaby For A Day Fly” features more conventional instrumental sounds and represents one of the trio’s most accessible and beautiful compositions. It incorporates a melodic pizzicato bass solo from Rasmussen, one of the few clearly delineated jazz solos of the entire set. In the main Little North operate as a collective, the lead changing hands subtly and unobtrusively.
The album concludes with the wistful “Isolation Song”, a concise but beautiful coda that is completely in tune with the ‘Nordic Cool’ aesthetic of the album as a whole.
Over the course of five albums Little North have developed a trio sound that is very much their own, albeit one that fits neatly into the Scandinavian jazz tradition and the overall concept of ‘Nordic Cool’.
They have developed a very distinctive approach to composition and improvisation and are uncompromising in their pursuit of their vision. I’m aware that there will be listeners out there who will find the trio’s music a little too rarefied, and maybe even bloodless, but there are many more who are likely to embrace their sound with a will. Fans of the contemporary piano trio format in general will appreciate the trio’s efforts whilst admirers of the ECM label, a German record company that has regularly recorded Scandinavian artists (Gustavsen, Stenson, Jan Garbarek and more), are likely to love Little North.
The band will be touring in Europe during early 2023 with one UK date at Stamford Methodist Church, Ketton on Saturday March 11th. Details of all tour dates can be found at http://www.little-north.comblog comments powered by Disqus